Posts Tagged ‘C.S. Lewis’

Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 2: Hypocritical Christians… like me?

August 15, 2018

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape, a demon who is experienced and successful in leading human “patients” to hell, apprentices his nephew Wormwood in the art of temptation. Wormwood’s patient has recently become a Christian. From Screwtape’s perspective, this fact alone does not spell disaster: the patient, he says, may yet become apostate and arrive safely in hell.

For one thing, Wormwood needs to attack him while he’s worshiping in church. Distract his patient’s mind with thoughts of how ridiculous his neighbors in the next pew seem—how, for instance, they dress shabbily; how they sing off-key. Screwtape continues:

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention? You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy [that is, God] to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with those ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.[1]I thought of this correspondence when reading Chapter 1 of Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong. The theme of the chapter is, Christians often behave in ways that are inconsistent with the faith they profess. (In other breaking news, water is wet.) Here is one typical passage, in which Hamilton shares the experience of one anonymous young woman:

I’m thinking of the Christians in my school that I see every day. They judge everyone constantly. It’s annoying, and a lot of people don’t really like it or like them because of it. I have a really good friend who claims to be a really hard-care Christian but he smokes weed all the time and drinks and does all these things, and he’s just not a Christian at all.[2]About her experience, Hamilton writes, “But this phenomenon is not unique to young adults. No doubt you can think of examples of Christians who were judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving.”

“You’re right, Rev. Hamilton! I can think of examples. In fact, I saw one living, breathing example of a judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving Christian when I looked in the mirror this morning!” In fact, even as I write these words (if you can’t tell from my tone) I’m feeling morally superior to you. A part of me wants my readers to recognize this superiority, admire my boldness in criticizing a well-respected leader in my denomination, and appreciate my self-awareness, which I hope they’ll mistake for humility.

See… I am a mess. I’m a sinner! And I’ve been a professing Christian for thirty-plus years! While I won’t excuse my sinfulness, I will point out that I am exactly the kind of person whom Jesus Christ came into the world to save: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17 ESV).

Honestly, is Adam Hamilton’s experience with sin different from mine? Has he already been entirely sanctified (as we Methodists might say)? If not, how do Screwtape’s words not apply to him, to the young woman he quotes above, to John, the young veteran whose conversation inspired this book, or to anyone else? If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?

See, while I wouldn’t deny for a moment that we Christians “get it wrong,” often, I would add that we Methodists, specifically, get it wrong when our doctrinal emphasis on sanctification causes us to lose sight of our justification. (I’ve said this before.) What I mean is this: We Methodists need to hear again and again that we are, in Luther’s phrase, simul justus et peccator (“both righteous and sinners at the same time”). We never outgrow the good news that we are sinners justified by God’s grace alone! Not an iota of holiness on our part (by which we Methodists often twist to mean “self-improvement”) will play a role in making us more or less acceptable before God.

Why? Because we are made holy and perfect before God for one reason alone: Christ has imputed his righteousness to us as a free gift. This truth ought to make our hearts sing!

Instead, we Methodists worry about cheap grace. So, as Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde says, we attempt use sanctification as the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” He continues:

God alone does the justifying simply by declaring the ungodly to be so, for Jesus’ sake. Most everyone is willing to concede that, at least in some fashion. But, of course, then comes the question: what happens next? Must not the justified live properly? Must not justification be safeguarded so it will not be abused? So sanctification enters the picture supposedly to rescue the good ship Salvation from the shipwreck on the rocks of Grace Alone. Sanctification, it seems, is our part of the bargain… The result of this kind of thinking is generally disastrous…[3]… as my own experience bears witness.

Don’t misunderstand me: I completely agree that we Christians must repent of hypocrisy and all other sins as we become aware of them. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to overcome these sins and expect that he will. The Bible says that our lives must “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8), because faith without works is dead (James 2:17). But this fruit, our good works, and the extent to which the Holy Spirit enables us to overcome our sin, play no role in saving us. Good fruit, as Jesus says, is merely evidence of a healthy tree (Matthew 7:17). Only God can make the tree healthy. Once he does, the good fruit will follow.

Am I wrong? When we are justified and born again, does God say, “Now let’s wait and see how it goes”? Heaven forbid! Instead, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). While it’s true that we Methodists believe in the possibility of backsliding, backsliding isn’t the result of any sin other than the abandonment of our trust in Christ.

So getting back to Hamilton’s apologetic concerns for this book… When a young person challenges Hamilton on the hypocrisy of many (most? all?) Christians, he could turn it around on the person: “Yes, and if Christ will save a sinner as bad as that, don’t you think he can save you, too?”

To say the least, God’s mercy toward sinners is a feature of Christianity, not a defect.

I’ll deal with the rest of Chapter 1 later.

1.C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 189-90.

2. Adam Hamilton, When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 9-10.

3. “The Art of Getting Used to Justification,” mockingbird.com, 29 November 2012. Accessed 15 August 2018.

Devotional Podcast #26: “Is Jesus Enough for Us?”

July 14, 2018

Devotional Text: Mark 5:21-43

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Saturday, July 14, and after a long break, I’m back with you for Episode Number 26 in my series of podcasts. I apologize for the time away. I’m an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and I was recently appointed to a new church. So over the past two months I’ve had to pack up and leave one town and one church move to another town and church. But now that I’m getting settled in, I hope to bring you these podcast episodes with more regularity.

You’re listening to “The Waiting” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, his hit song from 1981. I recorded this directly from the band’s long-playing vinyl record Hard Promises. The song is a happy song, in a way, because the singer sings it on the other side of a long and difficult wait. For the singer, the waiting is finally over—at last—because, you know, he’s finally found true love or whatever. But he wants you to know that waiting for true love was very difficult. In fact, “it’s the hardest part.” “Every day,” he says, “you see one more card”—you don’t see all the cards all at once; you just see one at a time, and you trust—you “take it on faith”—that you’re going to be holding all the right cards before the game is over.

And so it is for us Christians today, and so it was for Jairus in today’s scripture, which comes from Mark 5:21-43. I need to read it because, otherwise, you may not know what I’m talking about… [Read Mark 5:21-43.] 

Jairus is a synagogue ruler in Capernaum, the town that served as Jesus’ home base during his ministry years. That means, among other things, that Jairus is a powerful, wealthy, well-respected member of his community. He is sincerely religious, as we learn in v. 23, where Mark tells us that he “implored Jesus earnestly” to heal his terminally ill daughter. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s wrong with a “Jesus Plus” kind of faith?

July 7, 2018

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Last Sunday’s scripture, Mark 5:21-43, is often called a “Markan sandwich.” The top piece of bread is Jairus’s meeting Jesus on the shore to ask him to heal his daughter and Jesus’ accompanying him to his house, in vv. 21-24. This plot line gets interrupted by the hemorrhaging woman. Her story, in vv. 25-34, forms the middle part of the sandwich. Finally, the bottom piece of bread is the resumption and conclusion of Jairus’s story in vv. 35-43. This literary device is characteristic of Mark’s gospel: See Mark 2:1-12; 3:1-6; 3:20-35; 6:6b-31, among many other examples.

Mark tells his story in this way for two reasons: Not only because this is the way these events unfolded, but also because he wants the reader to see the interconnectedness of these two plot lines. As I said last Sunday, everyone, including the hemorrhaging woman, would expect Jesus to fulfill the request of a powerful, wealthy, credentialed, and respectable leader of the community: Jairus seems like a worthy candidate for a healing miracle of Jesus, whereas this ritually unclean poor woman does not.

Jairus is, as far as his fellow Jews are concerned, an unassailably “righteous” man. Mark doesn’t imply for a moment that he’s a hypocrite; he has no ulterior motive in coming to Jesus; his faith, such as it is, is sincere, as v. 23 makes clear: he “implored him earnestly.”

And yet, is Jairus really so different from the woman—social status notwithstanding?

At first, it seems like it. While they’re both desperate for Jesus to perform a healing miracle, the woman has nothing to lose: She’s lost everything already. She’s exhausted all her options. She has nothing in her favor. And even if Jesus heals her, what credit will she deserve? She doesn’t even have the courage to ask Jesus for help. She intends to steal a miracle from him.

Jairus isn’t like her. When he meets Jesus, he still has something working in his favor: time. In other words, he hasn’t lost everything yet because his daughter is still alive. So long as he gets Jesus to his daughter’s bedside before she dies, his labor will not have been in vain. How wise, how clever, how resourceful he will have been! “Well done, Jairus! Once again, you’ve saved the day—with Jesus’ help, of course. Still… apart from your quick wits, your good reputation, and your initiative, your daughter would have died! So, good job!”

I said in my previous post that Jairus’s faith is far from perfect, and we can see why: Until the messenger delivers the fateful news in v. 35, he isn’t trusting completely in Jesus or depending on him completely. He’s also trusting in his favorable circumstances: “As long as my daughter is still alive, it’s not too late! I still have reason for hope!” Jairus’s faith was not in Jesus Alone: it was in Jesus Plus these other things.

Jesus, of course, wants Jairus—and, by extension, us—to have a Jesus Alone kind of faith, not a Jesus Plus kind of faith. He wants to bring Jairus to the same place in which the hemorrhaging woman finds herself: a place of complete dependence on Christ. And so Jesus (that is, God) “rigs” Jairus’s circumstances to make sure this happens! By taking time to heal the hemorrhaging woman, God knows that final thread of Jairus’s misplaced faith—in himself and his circumstances—will be broken: “Why trouble the Teacher any further? Your daughter is dead. There is no longer any hope, Jairus. Give up.”

To this Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” In other words, Jesus says, only believe in me! I am the Lord of all circumstances. I’m the One who looks at the storm raging all around and says, “Peace! Be still!”

Easier said than done! I prefer to have a Jesus Plus faith rather than a Jesus Alone faith. I like being able to depend on myself, my circumstances, my vain belief that “things aren’t as bad as they seem.” In fact, what often passes for “Christian faith” for me is belief in my own power: the thought that I haven’t exhausted all my options; I haven’t worked all the angles; I haven’t called in all my favors—in which case my prayer isn’t that Jesus would save me—even if I mouth those pious words—so much as these favorable circumstances would save me, or these people who are well-disposed to me would save me. While Jesus often saves through circumstances and people—by all means!—I can easily forget that it is Jesus who does the saving; he is the One in whom I need to trust.

And isn’t that the hard part?

Not to worry, though: as I’ve learned from experience, Jesus will often test me until I remember that I have nothing and no one else to depend on except him. This is the “severe mercy” that Jesus shows to Jairus when he learns that his daughter has died. This is God’s discipline, and as painful as it often is, it is good for us!

The words of the author of Hebrews couldn’t be more fitting:

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

I’ve heard no one put it better than C.S. Lewis on this subject. (He uses the word “punishment” for “discipline,” but same difference.)

I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.[1]

Think of this world as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad. This is classic English understatement, perhaps, but I can only say, Amen!

1. C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.

Devotional Podcast #20: “Hard Luck Stories”

March 9, 2018

Hard luck stories… Everybody’s got them. Is that all they are, though? Hard luck? That’s just the way life goes, so get used to it? Not if the many promises in God’s Word are true.

Devotional Text: Psalm 66:10-12

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Friday, March 9, and this is devotional podcast number 20.

You’re listening to the song “Hard Luck Stories,” written by Richard Thompson and performed by him with his wife Linda on the duo’s 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver.

Here’s why I’m playing this song: We all can tell “hard luck stories” about our lives. Of course, the song warns that the people to whom we tell them may grow weary of hearing them. Nevertheless, we all have them. But what do we make of them? Are they truly the result of “hard luck” and that’s just the way life goes? Not if God’s many promises in scripture are true.

Take this passage from Psalm 66:10-12, for instance. The psalmist says,

For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
you let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.

This scripture reminds me of the plight of Jacob in Genesis 31 and 32. After 20 years of being away from his family home in the Promised Land—of living and striving alongside Laban, his uncle, father-in-law, and nemesis, God tells Jacob, in chapter 31, verse 3, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

And Jacob obeys. He packs up his wives, children, servants, and livestock. He leaves his Uncle Laban. And heads home. Even though doing so, as far as he knows, may cost him his life. The last time he saw his brother, Esau, after all, Esau was hell-bent on murdering him—because Jacob had cheated him out of his inheritance and his blessing. He’s desperately afraid. His fear isn’t alleviated when he sends messengers ahead of him, who report back to him: “We saw your brother, Esau. And good news! He’s coming to greet you. And he’s bringing with him about 400 of his closest friends.”

Jacob, ever the conniver, divides his people and property into two camps and sends one camp on ahead: “That way,” Jacob reasons, “if Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.” Genesis 32:8. He also arranges a bribe for Esau—offering him a large share of his livestock and servants. Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #13: “To Obey Is Better than Sacrifice”

February 9, 2018

In today’s devotional, I reflect briefly on the life of Keith Green, who, along with two of his young children, died in a plane crash in 1982—doing the work of his ministry, naturally. Green’s life, as much as anyone’s, was characterized by the title of his second album, No Compromise.

As I argue in this podcast, Jesus teaches all of us to live lives of “no compromise.”

Devotional Text: Philippians 3:8-11

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Thursday, February 8, and this is Devotional Podcast number 13.

One of the highlights of my convalescence from the flu this past week was listening to Keith Green’s 1978 album, No Compromise. You’re listening to one song from that album that moved me deeply. It’s called “To Obey Is Better than Sacrifice.” I was reading the liner notes to the album, in which Green offered “special thanks” to various contributors to the album. To his wife, Melody, he included this poignant detail:

Special thanks to… Melody, my wife, (for encouragement, rebuking in love, and having our baby, Josiah David)

This was late 1978. In July 1982, that baby, Josiah, now three, would be dead—along with his little sister Bethany and his father. They were killed in a private plane crash—while Green was conducting business related to his ministry. Keith Green was 28. And just like that, the life of this incredibly talented singer-songwriter—a musician whose first album Bob Dylan hailed as his “all-time favorite”—was snuffed out, along with the lives of his two young children.


In the song I played on Tuesday, “Make My Life a Prayer to You,” which comes from this same album, Green sang the following:

I wanna die and let you give
Your life to me so I might live
And share the hope you gave to me
The love that set me free

Of course, when he sang those lyrics he meant that he wanted to die to his old self—the “old man” that was crucified with Christ, as Paul says in Romans 6.[1] He meant he wanted to lose his life for Christ’s sake so that he might find new, eternal, and abundant life.

In a way, his deepest desire came true in July 1982. He and his two children—and everyone else who died in that plane crash—are at this moment experiencing a kind of life that we can only dream of—a life that’s waiting for all of us who are in Christ on the other side of heaven.

C.S. Lewis once said every deathbed is a monument to a petition that wasn’t granted. What he meant was that nearly every time someone dies, there’s someone else—a family member, a friend, a spouse—praying that that person would be healed, that that person would live.

And I get his point: Unless the Second Coming happens first, God will always answer that prayer by saying “no.” As much as I love Lewis—and no one would accuse me of not loving C.S. Lewis—he doesn’t get it quite right. God only says “no” so that he can say an infinitely deeper “yes,” an eternal “yes”: “You want healing. You’ve got it.” “You want life. You’ll have it more abundantly than ever.” “You want me… Let me hold you in my arms, son… Let me hold you in my arms, daughter. You’re safe now.” This is why Paul says that we Christians “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”[2]

When I preach funerals these days for people who I know were believers, I often ask the congregation to imagine what that person would say to us if he or she were here with us now. And I often point out that I make a living talking God, talking about his Son Jesus, talking about his grace, his love, his glory… It’s what I do. I’m a pastor. But whatever I think I know right now about these things… [scoffs] it’s baby talk compared to what this person who now lives directly in God’s presence knows… It’s baby talk by comparison!

From my perspective, it’s so obvious what our departed loved ones would say… isn’t it? They would say, “Don’t waste your life on lesser things. Dedicate your life—give everything—sacrifice everything if necessary—to pursuing and loving and pleasing and glorifying God and following his Son Jesus wherever he leads. Be willing to say, with the apostle Paul, “For Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[3]

Would we follow Christ with that kind of dedication if, as with our brother Keith Green, it meant our death within a few short years?

Or do we put heroes of the faith like Green in a special category—his example is too lofty for us. But we don’t get it… There’s just one category in which all of us Christians belong. If we are Christians at all, that means we sign our death warrant; it means we carry our cross—that instrument of torture and death—even if it leads us up that hill to Golgotha—for no servant is greater than his master.

And even if it kills us—physically—we are supposed to be O.K. with that—if that’s what Jesus wants for us.

Is that too extreme? Is that asking too much? If so, maybe being a Christian isn’t for us—because Jesus asks his followers for nothing less!

Green sings: “To obey is better than sacrifice/ I want more than Sundays and Wednesday nights/ Because if you won’t come to me every day/ Don’t bother coming at all.”

I used to think, “Where’s the grace?” Isn’t that so perfectly Methodist of me… to ask that question? Where’s the grace?

How about, instead of asking, “Where’s the grace?” we sinful Christians instead ask ourselves, “Where’s the contrition? Where’s the confession of sin? Where’s the repentance? Lord Jesus, forgive me for failing to give you everything… for failing to come to you every day.”

When we confess our sins and repent, by all means, God’s grace will be there. Why should we expect it a moment before that?

Brothers and sisters, Jesus wants everything that we have. Do we believe that if we give everything, it will be worth it? If not, why not? If so, what’s stopping us?

Devotional Podcast #8: “What Are You Afraid Of?”

January 26, 2018

Have you noticed that the things that you fear today aren’t usually things that are happening today? Rather, they are things that might happen next week, next month, next year. Why is that? Yet Jesus says not to worry about anything beyond today. It seems clear to me, then, that our fear is a far bigger problem than the things that we’re afraid of.

Devotional Text: Matthew 6:34

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Friday, January 26, and this is Devotional Podcast number 8. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I bring you a new devotional on this channel.

You’re listening to the Beach Boys and their 1963 song “In My Room.” This came from the album Surfer Girl originally. I recorded this from their 1974 compilation album, Endless Summer, which reached number one on the Billboard album charts.

Recently, I was reading a college football blog, and the readers of this blog were arguing in the comments section—as they often do—about my team, the direction of the program, the coaching staff, the institution. And one of the commenters referred by name to another commenter with whom he disagreed—I’ll call him Jason—and said, “Last year, I remember that Jason said thus-and-so, but here’s why he’s been proven wrong.”

Well, that prompted Jason to come out of the woodwork and respond. He wrote, “Thank you for letting me live rent-free in your head for the past year!”

That was a pretty good putdown. Jason was saying, in so many words, “Yes, you may think I’m wrong, but whatever I said a year ago made such an impression on you, that you’ve been thinking about it ever since—stewing over it, letting yourself be bothered by it or angered by it. Therefore, I win the argument.”

But it got me thinking about the people that I allow to “live in my head rent-free.” Who are they and why do I give them such an exalted place of honor?

And usually, the people who “live in my head” are people I’m afraid of for some reason: For me, this is almost always in the professional sphere; my career: I’m often afraid of colleagues, or supervisors, or parishioners who I perceive don’t like me—I’m afraid of how they might judge me, what they might say about me, how they might influence the opinions of others.

I’m like Sally Field at the Academy Awards so many years ago. “You like me! You really, really like me!” I just want everybody to like me!

I know this is beyond silly; this is un-Christian. My only concern should be to please my Lord—and worry about how he judges me. But instead I worry about others. There are, I know, a host of very interesting reasons going back to my childhood why I struggle with this insecurity.

My point is, these are the people who I let “live in my head.”

I wish I could say I was afraid of bad and powerful men like Kim Jong-un, but, no… he rarely crosses my mind. The objects of my fear are much smaller and much more local.

But it’s not just people—I let things I worry about live there as well.

I’m not saying everyone is like me—you probably let other kinds of people other kinds of things live in your head. But I’m sure, like me, you do so out of fear.

One of C.S. Lewis’s masterpieces is The Screwtape Letters. It’s an imagined correspondence between a demon named Screwtape, a well-seasoned tempter of humans, and his nephew Wormwood, a so-called “junior tempter.” We only get to read Screwtape’s side of the correspondence. But we infer that Wormwood is seeking advice from his uncle on how to handle Wormwood’s “patient.” You see, in the world of The Screwtape Letters, each demon is assigned a human “patient”—more like a victim—and it’s that demon’s job to lead their victim away from God, and away from salvation through Christ, and toward hell. If their human ends up in hell, well… then that demon will be judged a success.

In one of Screwtape’s letters, he talks about how Wormwood can use his patient’s fear to his advantage. In this case, his patient is worried about being called up for military service. (The novel is set in World War II Britain.) It’s uncertain whether the patient will be drafted, so he feels a mixture of anxiety and suspense. Screwtape writes the following [emphasis mine]:

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. [Remember, the “Enemy” in this case is God.] What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him—the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say “thy will be done”, and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them [that is, the things he is afraid of] as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practise fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is far easier and is usually helped by this direct action.[1]

Do you see Lewis’s point? The devil tries to focus our minds on the things that we’re afraid of—things that are waiting for us out there, in the uncertain future, where any number of fearful, undesirable things may happen to us—or not: because the future is unknowable. What we know for sure, right now, is that we’re afraid. Therefore, what what God wants us to focus on instead at this very moment—is the fear itself. That fear should be the thing occupying our prayers.

In other words, the anxiety that we’re feeling right now, as we think of possible future outcomes, is the problem; not the possible outcomes that are making us anxious.

Or put it this way: The fear is the problem; not the thing that’s making us afraid.

This is clear from Jesus’ teaching. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” This also clear from the rest of scripture. As Paul writes in Philippians 4:6, “[D]o not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Do you see the practical wisdom here?

What is making you unhappy todayright now… at this moment? It’s probably some “worst case scenario” that you fear will come to pass not today but at some point in the future—tomorrow, next week, next month.

Pray first about the fear that you’re experiencing right now. That fear is part of today’s trouble for which the Lord tells us to pray. You don’t yet know what tomorrow’s trouble is until you get there. But today’s trouble includes the fear that you’re experiencing. Pray about it! Your fear, as Lewis said above, is your “appointed cross” for today—not the thing that you’re afraid of.

Because, believe it or not, God doesn’t want you to be anxious… about anything… ever!

It’s not God’s will for you to worry. You’ll find out whether it’s God’s will for you to face that thing you’re afraid of when the time comes; at which point you can count on God’s giving you the grace you need to face it; but it’s definitely not God’s will for you to be afraid.

So pray that God will take away the fear. And listen to God’s Word—especially what it has to say about anxiety and fear. Start with Matthew 6:25-34.

1. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Westwood, NJ: Barbour and Co., 1961), 34-5.

Devotional Podcast #4: “Thank God for Unanswered Prayer”

January 17, 2018

As someone who’s interested in Christian apologetics, I used to think that unanswered prayer posed a bigger “challenge” to Christianity than I do today. I explain why in this podcast. The gist is this: I know my own heart to some extent. I often don’t know what’s good for me. And I often want things that ultimately cause me harm. Our Father, by contrast, only wants to give us “good things,” as Jesus says. So we can trust him.

Devotional Text: Matthew 7:7-11

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 17, and this is the fourth podcast of my new series of devotional podcasts. I’m posting new podcasts in this series every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I’ll also post my Sunday sermons whenever I get around to it. So stay tuned.

You’re listening to the song “Beautiful One,” by the band Daniel Amos, sometimes known as DA, from their 1986 album Fearful Symmetry. It’s hard not to hear echoes of the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe.”

Years ago—eleven, to be exact—I attended a debate in Atlanta between Christopher Hitchens, a well-known British political commentator, author, and journalist, and Timothy Jackson, one of my professors at the Candler School of Theology. At the time, the late Mr. Hitchens was staging debates with religious people as part of a publicity tour for his new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens was a quick wit and a famously fierce debater, and, although you wouldn’t know it from the boisterous reactions of Hitchens partisans in the audience—it was his book tour, after all—my guy, Dr. Jackson, won the debate… handily. In fact, the debate sparked my interest in Christian apologetics—the art of defending the Christian faith—that remains to this day. It’s hard to remember this now, but I started my blog in 2009 in part to address skeptical questions about the Christian faith.

One such question is the challenge posed by unanswered prayer. How do we square the fact of unanswered prayer with Jesus’ own words on the subject—for example, Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Or John 14:13: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

There are many good answers to this question, but I like this analogy from science: Chaos theory teaches us that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could be “magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific.”[1] So even a seemingly small event like a butterfly flapping its wings can change the course of history in ways that we can’t predict. Now think about our prayer petitions: the things we ask God to do for us will likely be far more significant than a butterfly flapping its wings; and only God can foresee whether the consequences of granting our petition will ultimately be good for us, for everyone else, and for the rest of Creation.

My point is, if God doesn’t grant our petition, we can trust that he knows best; we certainly don’t. As pastor Tim Keller puts it, “God gives us what we would have asked for, if we knew everything that God knows.”

I like that answer… I do! But it’s still a little academic.

How about this answer: Often God doesn’t give us—his children—what we ask for because God wants us to be happy—I mean, deeply happy; with a lasting kind of happiness, an invulnerable kind of joy. And we simply don’t know what we need in order to achieve that kind of happiness. But God does.

In that same passage from Matthew chapter 7 that I referred to a moment ago, Jesus says, “[W]hich one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”[2]

Notice Jesus says that our Father will give us “good things.” I hate to say it, but I’m not convinced I want good things much of the time!

Don’t get me wrong: I want things! For example, I desperately want recognition… I want people to praise me… I want people to appreciate me… I want people to show me how much they love me.

And you might say, “What do you want? A medal?” Yes! That’s a good start!

And if I don’t get a medal, I’d be willing to settle for lots of money! I’m not hard to please!

My point is, the things I want… even if I got them, they would never be enough. I would never be satisfied. God knows that!

So thank God for unanswered prayer! I mean that literally… Thank God! Our Father only wants to give his children good things. See, I’m the one asking for stones, and my Father gives me bread instead. I’m the one asking for a serpent, and my Father gives me a fish instead. Or, from Luke’s gospel, I’m the one asking for a scorpion, and my Father gives me an egg instead. Thank God!

God wants us to be happy… Our problem is our willingness to settle for something far less than happiness. Listen to the way C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain:

George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.[3]

“O God, I’m weary from hunger. I don’t want to starve any longer. Give me your bread of life. Give me your Son Jesus! Give me Jesus, and I’ll be satisfied. Amen.”

That’s a prayer that God will answer every time!

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2. Matthew 7:9-10 ESV

3. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.

Sermon 12-10-17: “Treasuring God and His Word”

January 3, 2018

In this sermon, for the Second Sunday in Advent, I contrast Mary’s response to Gabriel with Zechariah’s response. When it comes to treasuring God and his Word, are we more like Mary or Zechariah?

Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38

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Recall last week that after Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and his wife, Elizabeth, are going to have a child, Zechariah asks, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”[1] He doubts Gabriel’s message. And what happens next? The angel zaps him! He makes him mute—and as we can infer from verse 62 later in the chapter, deaf as well. For the next nine months, until his son is born, Zechariah is unable to hear or speak.

Of course, Gabriel is only acting on God’s behalf. So it’s not that the angel did it so much as God did it. God punished or disciplined Zechariah.

What do we make of this?

Just last week, in the New York Times, Billy Bush wrote a personal essay about his experience being fired by NBC News this time last year. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can google Billy Bush. I’m not getting into it! All you need to know is that Bush—a member of the political dynasty—was a rising star at NBC News before he got in trouble. And he got fired.

But I bring it up because I found the last two paragraphs of his essay deeply moving. He wrote:

On a personal note, this last year has been an odyssey, the likes of which I hope to never face again: anger, anxiety, betrayal, humiliation, many selfish but, I hope, understandable emotions. But these have given way to light, both spiritual and intellectual. It’s been fortifying.

I know that I don’t need the accouterments of fame to know God and be happy. After everything over the last year, I think I’m a better man and father to my three teenage daughters—far from perfect, but better.[2]

As a fellow sinner saved by God’s grace alone, I can only say a hearty “Amen.” What I hear in Bush’s words, first, is an acknowledgment of the destructive, insidious power of sin—but in the same breath I hear the grace of repentance and the mercy of God’s discipline.

That’s right… I said “mercy.” God’s discipline of Billy Bush was merciful. Read the rest of this entry »

Advent Podcast Day 19: “The Light Shines in Darkness”

December 21, 2017

From the first day of Advent until Christmas Day, I’m podcasting a daily devotional. You can listen by clicking on the playhead below.

Devotional Text: John 1:1-5

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s December 21, 2017, and this is Day 19 of my series of Advent podcasts. You’re listening to the band Jethro Tull, and a song they wrote and recorded about—well… this very day: December 21, the winter solstice. This song, “Ring Out, Solstice Bells,” comes from the band’s 1977 album Songs from the Wood.

My scripture today is John 1:1-5, which I’ll read now:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Do you remember that scene in Back to the Future when Doc Brown is introducing Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox’s character, to the wonders of his time-traveling DeLorean? Brown shows McFly an LED-based instrument built into the car’s dashboard and explains that you simply enter any date in the past that you want to travel back to and—voila!—that’s where you’ll end up. 

At one point he tells Marty, “We can go back and witness the birth of Jesus Christ.” And then you see Doc Brown punch in the date December 25 of the year “0000.”

And at this point, many people in the audience groaned. For two reasons. First, there wasn’t a year “0.” According to the calendar that the church created, which divides history between the time before Christ and the time after Christ was born, the calendar changed from 1 B.C. to A.D. 1.

And the second reason some people watching Back to the Future groaned is because Jesus wasn’t born on December 25—or I should say, there’s about a 1 in 365 chance that he was born on December 25! If you’ll recall a podcast I did last week, my amateur astronomer friend believed that Jesus was born some time in April.

But the Church chose the date of December 25 to celebrate Christ’s birth for an important reason: Under the old Julian calendar, it marked the winter solstice, the so-called “longest night of the year”—or, put the other way, the day with the least amount of sunlight. Just think: for the next six months, each day will be marked by progressively more daylight.

And in ancient times long before the birth of Christ, people attached religious significance to this day—thanking their god or gods that the solstice marked the “end of gloom and darkness and the victory of the sun and the light over the darkness.”[1] Because of this pagan association with the solstice, even some Christians today have misgivings about celebrating Christmas.

I certainly don’t share these misgivings. Even if under the old calendar December 25 was a pagan holiday, I would say that the day has been redeemed—like so many other things, including our very lives—by Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Read the rest of this entry »

Are people in hell repentant?

October 19, 2017

I’m currently teaching a Bible study on the parables of Jesus in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. A few weeks ago, we looked at the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31.

Recently some Bible scholars and theologians have rejected the depiction of hell in this parable. The parable isn’t about hell, they say. Jesus was merely adapting a well-known (at the time) Jewish folk tale to make a theological point about something other than perdition.

That may be true for all I know, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ words about hell aren’t truthful.

After all, Jesus didn’t tell us the Parable of the Good Samaritan in order to describe the highway connecting Jerusalem with Jericho, but the road that he describes certainly existed! With its twists and turns, it afforded many hiding places for brigands to rob passersby, as they do in the parable. Even though the highway isn’t the point of the parable, the setting is a real place, and Jesus describes it accurately.

My point is, I believe we can learn a lot about hell from this parable.

In my Bible study, we discussed whether the rich man was truly repentant. After all, instead of begging forgiveness of the poor beggar, Lazarus, whom the rich man mistreated throughout his life, he instead wanted him to leave his place of comfort to fetch him water—even through the flames—and warn his brothers of their fate.

Even in hell, it seems, the rich man still wanted to treat Lazarus with condescension or contempt, just as he did in the world.

But there’s another clue that the rich man remained unrepentant, as Clay Jones points out in a chapter called “How Can Eternal Punishment Be Fair” in his recent book Why Does God Allow Evil?

Further, the rich man’s suggestion that his brothers needed to be warned betrays a lack of repentance because it implies that he ended up in hell because God didn’t provide him with sufficient warning. Finally, the rich man disagreed with Abraham’s assertions hat the Law of Moses was sufficient evidence to lead his brothers into repentance. As R.C. Trench says, the rich man’s “contempt of God’s word,” which he showed on earth, follows him “beyond the grave.” Ironically, Lazarus was the name of a man who did come back from the dead [See John 11], and the chief priests responded to this resurrection by trying to kill both Jesus and the resurrected Lazarus (John 12:9-10)![1]

Why is lack of repentance important? One of the biggest fears that we Christians have about hell is that people who go there will realize immediately that they were wrong, will want to repent, but will be unable to. In at least a couple of his apologetic works, The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis argues against this idea, saying that the doors of hell are “locked from the inside.” In other words, in some twisted way the people who are in hell will want to be there—at least more than they’ll want the alternative, which would involve their humbling themselves before their Creator and repenting.

I’ve always hoped that Lewis was right about this. Whether he is or not, I have no doubt that God will be perfectly just. But until I read Dr. Jones’s book, I had never considered the biblical evidence for Lewis’s point of view.

1. Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 100.